Friday, March 23, 2007

All That I Have Left Behind...a Musical Journey

I saw in the paper this morning that today is Ric Ocasek’s (of the Cars) birthday. He’s 58. And boy that seems old, because it feels like it wasn’t that long ago that the Cars were a young up-and-coming new wave band, popular at first with the “edgy” kids, and then hitting the mainstream. But time has passed and all of the old punks and new wavers are, well, older. We age. A basic fact of life.

But it got me thinking about the formative days of punk and new wave, first in the mid-to-late 70s and then into the 80s and the birth of MTV. The Sex Pistols are old. The Clash are old. I guess that means that at the age of 45, I am now old…or at least getting there.

I grew up in the 70s with two older brothers, so much of my musical tastes at the time were informed somewhat by what they were listening to. I spent a lot of time listening to Yes, Genesis, Led Zeppelin, The Who, Chicago, Kansas, Jethro Tull, etc. In high school we had a group of kids listening to The Grateful Dead/Hot Tuna/Jefferson Airplane. Then there were the kids who lived for a young band named Aerosmith. And I remember a few kids being into some upstart by the name of Tom Petty. And since I grew up in the Philly area, there were quite a few kids who really thought there was a future for this guy named Springsteen.

But when I got to college in 1979, and began working at the college radio station, a whole new world of music was opened up to me. The music library was this small, windowless room with shelves and shelves of vinyl. And I discovered so many different artists. Bruce Cockburn, The Alpha Band (which gave us T-Bone Burnett), Andy Pratt, Mark Heard, Roxy Music, Television, The Velvet Underground and so many more. But at the time I had a friend back home who was a part of the Jersey surfer culture, and he had jumped headfirst into the whole punk/new wave thing. While they were different styles of music, they shared a few sensibilities, and by virtue of being new and edgy, they shared an audience. This kid, Adam, spent a lot of money on records from bands like Black Flag (featuring Henry Rollins), Husker Du, the Dead Kennedys, and dozens of other bands I can’t even remember. There were even early “ska” bands like The English Beat and The Specials. And I’ll never forget listening to the song “One Step Beyond” from Madness, over and over again, or "Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick" by Ian Dury and the Blockheads. A lot of this music was “popularized” in the U.S. by a DJ with the unlikely name of Rodney Bingenheimer on KROQ in Los Angeles, where he was known as “Rodney on the Roq.” But a few of the records Adam played for me really hit home. He introduced me to The Clash, whose London Calling and Sandinista albums are on my MP3 player. Adam was also an early adopter of The Police, and Stewart Copeland’s side project, Klark Kent. (If anyone knows where I can get the Klark Kent album, preferably on CD, let me know!) And don’t forget The Buggles and their offspring, Bruce Wooley and the Camera Club. Oh,and I can't forget the band Minor Threat, which began the whole straight-edge movement and gave birth to the first wave of emo (nothing like what passes for emo today!)

The other day I hit on something about Devo while watching TV, and saw an early performance with the skinny, geeky electronic musicians from Ohio. That was followed by a concert performance a few decades later, and the guys had, well, shall we say, “filled out” a bit? A bit larger around the paunch, a little less hair, a few more wrinkles…and…Devo just didn’t look, or sound, all that great. I’d rather just have my fond memories, thank you.

But for all these bands that have disbanded, split apart, aged, or worse yet, stuck around to tour the county fair circuit, there is one band that seems to be doing something right. If you know me, you’ll have guessed that I’m talking about U2. One of the things that Adam was able to do through his connections was get a hold of a 7” disc from Ireland that was U2’s first recording: U2-3. It featured the songs “Out of Control,” “Stories for Boys,” (both of which would end up on the first album, Boy), and “Boy-Girl.” Adam let me make a copy of the disc and in early 1980 I was playing this raw, emotionally charged new sound to an audience of probably five people in Western Pennsylvania. He also got me copies of the vinyl singles “Another Day b/w Twilight” and “11 o’clock Tick Tock b/w Touch.” Who knows, I may actually have been the first person to play U2 on the radio in the U.S. because they really wouldn’t hit this side of the ocean for at least another year or so. I don’t say this to pat myself on the back, because I just got lucky. As much as I liked U2 at that point, I would fall in and out of love with them a time or two over the years, and I never thought they would be a success, let alone become possibly the biggest band out there.

But to come full circle, here we are nearly three decades after the formation of the band, and they are still together with the original lineup, making music that is relevant, meaningful, and just plain “good.” The guys in the band are all just a year or two older than I am, and they show no signs of stopping. They are proving that it can be done...with grace. And socially they are extremely educated and proactive, not merely knee-jerk and reactive. I appreciate what they have done with the One Campaign, DATA, and Red.

With all the other bands I mentioned from the early punk/new wave scene, all I have are the memories, and few choice CDs to help bring those memories back. But boy there sure is some good music, and some good memories.

A side note: My friend Adam Antosh, whom I grew up with, eventually joined me at college and worked at the college radio station with me. In 1983 he was part of my wedding. We kept in touch a little bit over the years, but sadly he passed away at the age of 40 in November, 2003. I never got the chance to thank him, but I am very appreciative of how he introduced me to so much music and helped broaden my thinking about music. In fact, most of our phone conversations over the last ten years of his life usually began with one of us asking the other "Whatcha listening to these days? Any cool new bands?"

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